One of the great things about social technology is that anyone can have a platform for promoting their view of the world - via blog, comments on another person's blog, Facebook page, Twitter, etc. That means that sooner or later, people are going to talk about your organization or cause online. That can feel great, if they love you; or it can feel bad, if they say stuff that's not so nice. But I think the not-nice stuff is even more valuable sometimes, especially when it relates to our communications and customer/donor service. It's good to know when people aren't happy, because it can help us do a better job serving them by solving problems we may have been unaware about.
Tactical Philanthropy blog asked me my philosophy on this topic after GiveWell blog had some not-so-nice things to say about Network for Good, which I replied to and discussed before eventually settling the matter. I thought I'd share what I said:
Good marketing is about listening to the audience, acknowledging their perspective and having a conversation based on that perspective. A good marketing relationship is like any other relationship - it's based in listening and conversation, and not simply monologue. Now everyone - including donors - has the tools to talk to the world, and that means nonprofits have the opportunity to listen, and sometimes, to start a conversation. I consider the Internet one big focus group - a place to see what donors, nonprofits and others are saying and doing, and a means to engage those audiences in conversations about what they care about. Donors' blogs are incredibly useful - they are audience research, a feedback loop, a sounding board and a place to start a relationship - all rolled into one.
That's all really easy to say, but hard - even painful - to experience. Blogs allow people the freedom to talk about your issue or organization in their own words, and that means a loss of message control, which can be difficult to embrace. Sometimes what people say online is not especially nice or constructive, or it may not be based in a thorough understanding of any issue. It can be unpleasant - and sometimes, I think it's best not to respond if what you read is a cheap-shot from someone not very invested in the issue at hand. I've stayed out of some conversations for that reason. But often, what a comment or post online may lack in warmth, it more than makes up for in authenticity and passion, and, however much it hurts to read it (and it hurts, especially if you believe in what you do), it's very useful to know what people are honestly thinking. Those honest thinkers are worth listening to and learning from, and speaking with.
In the case of GiveWell, it was very important to know people don't have a good understanding of our fees, and why. Obviously, we should do a better job explaining them, and we will. I stand by our fees and believe they are incredibly fair considering all that we offer nonprofits, but if folks think they are not worth it, then I need to listen to that opinion - and learn from it, then do a better job as a communicator going forward.
If I were working in marketing at United Airlines, I'd spend more time reading http://www.untied.com/and thinking about how to improve my company than I would on creating new ad campaigns.
We have a serious problem in our sector right now - so bad, we might end up with an untied.com of our own. Most donors stop giving to charity because of dissatisfaction with how they were treated by the charity rather than personal constraints like financial problems. Too much mail, no thank-you acknowledgements, and little information on how their money was spent. If they are that mad, we had better listen-and learn.